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Former ICE detainee’s lawsuit says he spent 14 months in solitary confinement: ‘Nightmare of isolation, abuse’

A section of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border near Calexico, Calif. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

After Carlos Murillo Vega was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in December 2019, he was taken to a privately run detention center in Calexico, Calif. There, he was given a choice.

Murillo could either be housed with the detention center’s general population, or he could live in “protective custody,” Murillo alleges in a lawsuit filed Thursday. Living with the general population would be dangerous, a prison employee told Murillo, according to the lawsuit. So the 40-year-old man chose protective custody.

“What followed was a Kafkaesque nightmare of isolation, abuse, and callous disregard for Mr. Murillo’s physical and mental health,” Murillo’s lawsuit states.

That nightmare — 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement — lasted 14 months, Murillo claims. The United Nations considers solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days to be a form of torture.

Murillo’s lawsuit is the first case to be filed under a California law passed in 2020 aimed at bringing private immigration facilities into compliance with detention standards outlined in their contracts, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the lawsuit. The law allows detainees to sue if those standards are not met.

The lawsuit alleges that the Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, a private prison company that operates the Calexico facility, violated multiple ICE detention standards. The Imperial Regional Detention Facility, according to the lawsuit, did not assess whether Murillo was psychologically fit for solitary confinement, nor did it provide the man with basic rights required during protective custody, including visitations and trips outside. Moreover, it did not frequently evaluate Murillo as it is required to do, according to the lawsuit.

Murillo is suing for monetary damages, alleging that MTC intentionally inflicted emotional distress, was negligent and violated the detention standards required by ICE.

Neither MTC nor ICE immediately responded to requests for comment late Thursday.

According to the Times, Murillo was born in Mexico but raised in Holtville, a small California city about 20 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border. Murillo “is a United States citizen through his father, a U.S.-born military veteran,” the lawsuit states. “When ICE arrested Mr. Murillo, he did not understand immigration law and had not yet obtained the necessary documents to prove his United States citizenship.”

Murillo’s deportation case is being litigated, according to the Times. Some children of U.S. service members and government employees qualify for citizenship, though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says certain conditions must be met.

It’s unclear why or where Murillo was detained by ICE, but in December 2019 he first stepped into his solitary confinement cell, where he stayed for 10 months uninterrupted, save for the one hour a day he was allowed out, the lawsuit states. “His cell was so small that when he stretched out his arms, he could almost touch both walls,” it adds.

He spent most of his time either lying down or pacing in the small space, according to the lawsuit. Because he wasn’t allowed to visit the library, he told the Times, he read the Bible, frequently revisiting Isaiah 43:26: “Put me in remembrance; let us plead together: set thou forth thy cause, that thou mayest be justified.”

Although ICE standards required the detention facility to provide Murillo with jail programs, visitation rights and any service provided to the facility’s general population, Murillo received none of those offerings, according to the lawsuit.

In October 2020, as maintenance was performed on the solitary cells, Murillo and other detainees in his unit were placed in a dormitory and allowed to go outside, socialize, call their families and visit the library.

The detainees were later moved out of the dormitory despite their pleas to stay, and Murillo was soon back in solitary confinement. And, having had a taste of the alternative, the lawsuit says Murillo’s mental health declined quickly.

Murillo spent his days pacing back and forth in his small cell, hardly sleeping for weeks on end, the lawsuit claims. He repeatedly asked to be placed in general population but was rebuffed, leaving him feeling hopeless, the lawsuit states, “and he contemplated suicide.”

In December 2020, after having conducted an inspection of the Imperial facility, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general released a report that found the center was inappropriately using solitary confinement as a means of protective custody and was violating federal standards by not providing basic rights to detainees like Murillo.

Moreover, in January 2021, the California Department of Justice issued a separate report that found detainees in protective custody at the facility were subject to “harsh and isolating conditions” and not returned to the general population when they requested it.

“Neither the OIG report nor the Cal. DOJ report had any effect on Imperial’s practices,” the lawsuit states.

In February 2021, Murillo was released. Save for the two weeks spent in the dormitory, Murillo spent 14 months in solitary confinement, the lawsuit states. The circumstances of his release — and where Murillo now resides — are unclear.

His lawyers did not immediately respond to emailed questions late Thursday.

To this day, Murillo continues to have nightmares, the lawsuit states.

It adds: “His day-to-day life is permeated with fear that he will go back to solitary confinement and be separated from his family, his friends, and the outside world.”